Review: 2021 Mazda Miata RF Grand Touring
Two years ago, Mazda released what I, and many others, thought of as the “maximum Miata”: the 30th Anniversary Edition. Maybe it was the Buddhist Miata, because it was the one with everything: a new, high-revving 181-horsepower inline-four, Brembo brakes, Recaro seats in Alcantara, all the luxury options, unique paint, and unobtainium RAYS wheels that weighed just fifteen pounds each. It was a perfect distillation of what Mazda’s sports car has become over the past three decades, and what the marque’s most dedicated customers want.
Viewed in that context, this solid-top Grand Touring is kind of a Minimum Miata. It’s slower than a 30th, nontrivially so; I know, because I have a 30th. Blame the heavy RF mechanism, probably. The interior is white leather, like a 1976 Eldorado convertible might have. Suspension, wheels, tires, and brakes are all the least sporting variants you can get on this car. Give it an automatic transmission, and it would be as far away from the rip-snorting 30th—or the current BBS/Brembo Club—as possible.
Who buys a Miata and then decides it should be this Miata?
Let’s find out.
The retractable top is probably the most polarizing part of the Grand Touring RF. In many ways, it’s the worst of all worlds, because it’s heavy, it’s bulky, yet it doesn’t really count as “roll structure.” If you take your RF to a track day where the operators are clued-in and competent, they’re going to treat you like a soft-top convertible, because if you roll the thing that’s all the protection you’ll get from this mostly plastic cap.
That’s the bad news. The good news: The RF is significantly quieter than a standard Miata. The operating mechanism is robust-looking and it mostly relies on the operation of steel gears. The insane complexity of many German retracting holdtops is notable here by its absence. I had a few automotive engineers look over the thing and the consensus is that it will last a long time, just like the rest of the car.
Aesthetically, some people love the RF and others hate it. I think it makes the ND-generation Miata look E-Type-ish, but there’s a massive hand-wave in the form of the shiny black plastic panels that are meant to convey the appearance of quarter-windows. To me, the convertible is nicer-looking and has more front-to-rear visual balance. Your opinion is no less valid than mine, regardless of what you think.
The aforementioned white leather interior is quite charming, although if you wear jeans on a daily basis you’ll want to think twice about spending the extra $300 for it. The rest of the Grand Touring interior is standard ND-generation fare, both good (superb sight lines, good materials) and bad (an infotainment knob under your elbow, so you will periodically cause the car to start or stop playing music accidentally). As with all upscale Miatas, phone calls are played through headrest speakers, which makes a truly positive difference when trying to chat with the top retracted.
We got this car at the end of its service life and based on the painful clunks of the transmission as it ground into first and second gear it seems safe to assume that some of our colleagues used it to teach themselves heel-and-toe, or maybe just stick-shift operation in general. Mazda took a lot of weight and inertia out of the ND gearbox, but it also took out any ability to suffer fools gladly. This is not a car you should lend to the inept, doubly so because it would be such a shame to not drive it yourself whenever possible.
Truth be told, the differences between this RF and a decked-out 30th Anniversary on 200-treadwear tires aren’t really apparent until you’re traveling way too fast for sanity’s sake. The brakes are strong and predictable in street use, the grip is nicely balanced front to rear, and there’s always enough power available with a single downshift. Maybe it’s two seconds a lap slower on most tracks, tops. You could own and enjoy this car for twenty years of regular back-road driving and never want any more pace than it can offer.
It should also be noted that Flyin’ Miata will happily sell you a very good set of brakes to go along with a wheel/tire set considerably more extreme than anything Mazda offers in the showroom, so if you wanted a white-leather assassin for the Tail of the Dragon, it’s just a phone call away. I would admire the heck out of anyone who turned a Blue Crystal/Nappa White Grand Touring into a canyon specialist.
All the rest of the ND Miata virtues apply to this car. It’s built to last a lifetime and assembled with fanatical precision. No other thirty-five-thousand-dollar car on the market feels this special or this well-thought-out. At all times it is encouraging you to drive a little faster, shift up a few hundred rpm higher, brake a touch later. Yet on long freeway drags it’s more than tolerable, particularly if you fit in it to begin with. (At six-two with just a 32-inch inseam, your author is on the edge of comfort in this car, largely because the Grand Touring seats occupy just a bit more room in the car than the Recaros seem to.)
So let’s get back to our original question: Who buys this Miata? Well, ever since the 1991 Special Edition there’s been a market for people who want a little more comfort and style in their two-seat Mazda, sans the aggression and the obvious track focus. It’s hard to remember this in 2021, but the Miata wasn’t always a club-race special. The original buyer was best described as “MG or Lotus Elan buyer who doesn’t employ a ride-along mechanic,” and that kind of person would probably still gravitate to this sort of MX-5.
Other candidates: empty-nesters whose knees aren’t too bad, autocrossers who don’t have off-street parking, those hardy souls who run a sports car year-round. I’d also suggest that anyone looking at a BMW Z4 or similar “prestige” two-seater check out the Grand Touring RF. It has most of the refinement you’d get in a bigger “hardtop convertible” without any of the size/weight/thirst/durability drawbacks. You’ll want to act fast, however, as there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to buy a Miata like this forever. And that’s a shame, because while this is far from the Maximum Miata it’s still one of the best sports cars ever built. No excuses necessary.
2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring
Price (Base/As-tested): $35,520/$35,820.
Pros: Brilliantly made, lovely colors, low wind noise, a joy to drive.
Cons: Heavier, slower, less aggressive than other cars in the lineup. For most people, the soft-top car will be more satisfying.
Summary: This upscale Miata will be a rare choice, and for refined palates only.